Depression and the Strong Black Woman

Approximately one in five women develop depression during their lifetime, and it is estimated that the depression rate among black women is fifty percent higher than that of white women.  

Depression is most commonly understood to be caused by an imbalance of neurochemicals, like serotonin and dopamine, but black scholars like Tamara Beauboeuf-LaFontant, Charisse Jones, and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, suggest that in addition to its biochemical roots, depression is also a gendered and racialized symptom of oppression – since racial minority status and poverty are associated with higher levels of depression among women (Siefert et al, 2000).

Black women are  twenty percent more likely to report having serious psychological distress than white women

(Black Women’s Health, 2015).

Inspired by the work of Dana Crowley Jack, Tamara Beauboeuf-LaFontant coined “the silencing paradigm” to explain the experience of depressed strong black women.

The feelings often associated with depression are:

  • Hopelessness
  • Helplessness
  • Disinterest in pleasurable and routine activities
  • Social withdrawal
  • Fatigue

According to “the silencing paradigm” these feelings are not just the result of a neurochemical imbalance, but a result of a fracturing of the self and the mourning of a self that has been excluded based on societal norms and beliefs.

This fracturing of the self is described as shifting by Clarisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden or changing outward behavior, attitude, or vocal tone to accommodate the dominant white culture and to compensate for differences in class, gender, and ethnicity.

“To shift is to work overtime to prove that you are not lazy…to prove that you are capable, intelligent, and hard-working or trying to convince yourself that you are really ok no matter what the broader society says about you.”

Jones & Shorter-Gooden, 2008, pg. 7-8).

Shifting is a consequence of living within a system of oppression that promotes racial and gender bias – a process that chips away at black women’s sense of self and wholeness.

The “strong black woman” stereotype also plays a role in black women’s experience with depression.

Susan Taylor, former editor of Essence magazine, shares in her autobiography that she felt compelled to withhold her emotional reality and uphold a façade of strength because “feeling stressed, anxious, and ill have become accepted ways of living for black women” (pg. 5).

Similarly, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah drew attention to her strength while struggling with depression. She compared it to a performance rather than an authentic expression of their experiences.

In both autobiographical accounts, the women noted that they did not feel hopeless or helpless, instead, they experienced:

  • Extreme physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Frustration
  • Suppressed anger

This demonstrates that the “strong black woman” stereotype influences the black woman’s experience with depression culturally, but also symptomatically.

The recognition of these symptoms and the unique cultural components associated with it, led Clarisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden to describe the depression that strong black women experience as the Sisterella Complex.”

According to Jones and Shorter-Gooden (2008), talented, hardworking, selfless strong black women shift and suppress their own needs and feelings so much that “they are pushed insidiously, unwittingly, often invisibly toward depression” (pg. 124).

Since the strong black woman is often functional and suffers in silence, her depression often goes undiagnosed or unrecognized by mental health practitioners.

Systemic issues, like limited access to quality health care, high healthcare costs, distrust of healthcare providers, and lack of cultural competence among healthcare professionals also contribute to the lack of recognition and diagnosis (Collins, 2013).

If you are experiencing these symptoms, seek support – you are not alone, and you don’t have to suffer:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (open 24/7): 1-800-273-8255
  • Samaritans 24-Hour Crisis Hotline (open 24/7, call or text): 1-877-870-4673
  • United Way Crisis Helpline (can help you find a therapist, healthcare, or basic necessities): 2-1-1

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